The Dangers of Old Barns
When I was young, my family used to make summer visits to a hobby farm owned by a friend of my father’s. One of my favourite things about the farm was the old barn, with its interesting nooks and crannies, small flock of inquisitive chickens, and most of all, the cheerful shafts of light that came in through the gaps in the old weathered walls.
The gaps in the walls that let in light and fresh air are part of the charm of old barns, but also a warning sign. If a barn deteriorates for too long, it runs the risk of collapsing and becomes a danger to its animal inhabitants and human visitors.
Just like those gaps, the “cracks in the secular” featured in the Fall 2014 issue of Comment create openings for gospel light and air to penetrate the musty interior of the secular order. But we should not forget that the crumbling of that order is at least partly driven by processes that endanger human flourishing in general and the health of the church in particular.
In other words, cracks let the light shine in, but they can also bring the building down on everyone’s heads.
Crumbling Structures: Sexuality and the Economy
What I am calling the secular order is a way of structuring culture and society based on the functional assumption that the cosmos is inherently meaningless, devoid of any higher power or ordering principle, and so it furnishes us with no norms for human behaviour. This lack of “given” meaning leaves us with the freedom, or burden, to create our own values as individuals. Under such an order, social arrangements cannot be justified by an appeal to transcendent norms, but only in terms of self-interest, consent, and mutually beneficial agreements.
While such a state of affairs has had undeniable appeal for modern Westerners, it turns out that it is difficult to sustain a robust social order on the basis of individual autonomy alone. In the contemporary West, the breakdown of social order is particularly evident in two realms: the sexual and the economic.
Since the 1960s, a Western sexual ethic based on the idea of created norms has given way to one based purely on the notion of individual autonomy. The consequences of this profound shift in Western culture are only beginning to reveal themselves, but some of the major ones are already clear. The individualistic secular sexual ethic is unable to maintain stable marriages or families, which means it is unable to sustain the optimal environment for ensuring the well being of children. In fact, it is unable to sustain the production of children in the first place, as birthrates have fallen below replacement level in most Western countries. Even leaving aside the mounting evidence that unstable families, hook-up culture, and internet pornography are contributing to a major mental health crisis among the young, Western societies are failing at the most basic task of reproducing themselves. In this sense, the secular order is literally unsustainable; secular societies can only survive demographically by importing large numbers of people from non-secular societies, which ironically increases the proportion of the populace that does not take secularism for granted.
The economic consequences of the secular order are less obvious, but here too they point in the direction of unsustainability. While self-interest and mutual benefit may be adequate guides for the functioning of the market, the market itself can only flourish within a larger social order, including a strong civil society, stable families, high levels of interpersonal trust, cultural preferences for hard work and thrift, and Sabbath practices that sustain healthy, focused workers. All of these are undercut by the normless individualism of the secular order.
Indeed, combined with the demographic decline triggered by the sexual revolution, the economic effects of the secular order may be creating an environment in which long-term economic contraction can only be postponed by easy credit from central banks. Childlessness, for example, leads to an aging population, a shrinking workforce, and long-term reductions in the rate of economic growth. Given that Western societies now depend on attracting immigrants simply to maintain stable populations, and that immigrants are primarily attracted by economic opportunity, this is grim news for the secular society indeed.
The factors undermining the secular order are relatively slow-moving. Family breakdown and demographic decline, for example, are cumulative processes that require multiple generations before they are severe enough to trigger major crises. Moreover, the effects of the secular order are still being diluted by the persistence of pre-secular patterns of life. Christian family mores, sexual ethics, and economic principles still exert real, if diminishing, influence on large segments of the population. In this sense, secular society is living off the accumulated social capital of Christendom. We should not expect an imminent collapse of the secular order.
Nevertheless, the long-term trends are clear, and they suggest that a society based on a denial of transcendent norms and an exaltation of individual autonomy is unsustainable; the core values of the secular order are corrosive of the relationships and institutions that make human flourishing possible.
A Crumbling Church?
As inhabitants of secular societies, Christians are also threatened by these trends, both as we directly succumb to the same ills that afflict our neighbours and as we indirectly suffer from the ripple effects of failing families and economies. But the church as an organism and as an institution is also threatened by the same pressures that threaten the family and the economy. Just as the intensification of the secular order in these areas has corrosive effects, so too the intensification of the secular order endangers the health of the church and presents serious difficulties for Christians.
Most obviously, levels of religious participation and commitment have been declining for half a century in Canada, and more recently in the United States as well. This trend and its counterpart, the growing ranks of the religiously unaffiliated, show no real signs of abating. Committed Christians are already part of a shrinking minority in North America. At the same time, the major institutions of cultural formation, including the public schools and universities, the entertainment industries, and the news media, tend to either ignore religion or portray it in negative terms. As a result, ignorance and mistrust of Christianity is on the increase.
Mistrust is most apparent with respect to the Christian belief that sex, gender, and sexuality are normatively linked, and specifically its prohibition of homosexual relations. The sudden shift in popular attitudes towards homosexuality in the last two decades has successfully painted this prohibition as morally equivalent to racism in the public mind. Recent controversies over Gordon College’s hiring practices and Trinity Western University’s law school reflect this shift. The question for most people now is not whether the Christian ethic is morally defensible, but whether it is legally tolerable.
Far from being some kind of last gasp of baby-boomer secularists, this attitude is deeply embedded in popular culture and cultivated by public education systems, and as a result it is the most firmly entrenched among the young people who will be moving into positions of leadership over the next several decades. In such an environment, churches and other Christian institutions will be hard pressed to maintain the tolerance, never mind the goodwill, of their governments and communities.
Meanwhile, the most robust major religious community in North America—Protestant evangelicalism—is entering into a difficult period of retrenchment. Evangelicals may still fare better than other Christian groups in retaining and recruiting high-commitment members, but they are not exactly faring splendidly. In Canada, the growth of most evangelical denominations has plateaued, and the recent Hemorrhaging Faith study suggests half of the children raised attending evangelical churches weekly in the 1980s and 1990s no longer do so. In the US, particularly, evangelicalism has become identified with a political movement that is wildly unpopular with cultural elites and has an uncertain future. And on both sides of the border, the evangelical consensus of recent decades seems to be breaking down, with defections on the one hand to a kind of liberalism redux, and serious disagreements among those who remain—whether neo-Puritan, neo-Anabaptist, or neo-charismatic—about the way forward.
None of these trends—religious disaffiliation, growing contempt for the Christian sexual ethic, and evangelical disarray—are fatal, but all of them are formidable, and all of them are strongest among the young. In short, while the secular order crumbles, things are likely to get more difficult for North American Christians who want to present a robust public witness.
Wise Christians, therefore, will need to do several things at once. We will need to develop strategies to protect and strengthen Christian institutions of all kinds, especially the gathered church. This will include serious work to be—and be seen as—a constructive partner in a plural society, to seek legal protection for Christian institutions, and to find common cause with other Christian and non-Christian religious communities. It will require us to nurture the health of the local church though biblical patterns of worship, discipline, and teaching that boldly stand against every form of secular syncretism and remind us that our hope is in God rather than our own efforts. Everything else depends on this.
As we do this, we will also need to heed our master’s command to love our neighbours by offering help and healing to those cast off as collateral damage by the secular order—the refugees of failed marriages, sexual addiction, financial ruin, and elder neglect. And always, we will we need to breathe into the cracks in the secular order, winsomely offering up with our lives and our words the biblical witness of working marriages and families, sustainable social and economic practices, and the cosmic meaning that alone can address the deepest longings of the heart.